Sunday, November 13, 2011

Salsa vs Pico de Gallo : What's the Difference?

Salsa and pico de gallo are staples at my house and most local restaurants: many furriners aren't sure what is the difference. Pico, pictured top, is generally made up of fresh raw tomatoes, onions, jalapenos and cilantro chopped up into tiny chunks and served cold or room temp, sometimes marinated in lime juice. Spoon it onto a chip or stuff it into your burrito, it is not "Mexican coleslaw" (as we used to tell unsuspecting tourists). It is a raw veggie garnish you eat like dip. Oddly, pico is nearly the same (ingredients, flavor, mixture ratio) where ever you eat it in the southwest. You can also mix it with avocados and make great guacamole, spoon it into tacos, burritos, eggs, etc. To natives, it does not taste particularly spicy....hubster, who likes hot foods, adds a ton of jalapenos to his.
Salsa, pictured below, contains similar ingredients to pico de gallo, (often with the addition of garlic or other flavors- see below for comments) yet is always in a more liquid, less solid state. Some versions are strained and have no solid particulates at all; some versions are slightly chunkier, but always more liquid than solid. It is like gazpacho but spicier and is never eaten as soup. It can be served cooked (often made of fire roasted ingredients) or raw. Each restaurant has a different flavor, a different style, and considerable time is spent arguing or comparing whose is best and why. Salsa not only varies from one restaurant to another, but from one culinary region to another. In New Mexico, it often comes in red or green (depending or whether made with red chile or green chile) or hatch- another kind of chile. ("You say c-h-i-l-e, I say c-h-i-l-i......tomato, to-mah-to"). In California, it often has beans or corn in it. You can dip chips in salsa, spoon it into any Mexican dish, like pico - only salsa will be a liquid flavor, while pico will be a solid vegetable component (like the lettuce and tomatoes on a taco.) To compare to a hamburger: pico is like the pickles and lettuce, while salsa is like the ketchup and mustard. You can make your own- numerous recipes float the web - or buy one that's in a jar. Arriba is my hands-down favorite, all-purpose, eat it every day, go-to brand. It's available in grocery stores around here, comes in many different hotness levels and flavors/styles. I like regular medium. Brother-in-law enrolled us in the "salsa of the month " club, and while a cute idea, most of the ones featured were too sweet, too weird- artichoke or peach additions- and just collect dust in the pantry. I know Pace Picante Sauce claims to be the national salsa of Texas, but I just don't like it and never have. It has a weird bitter after taste and the veggies in it are green and slimy and look like boogers.

What is picante sauce? Another word for salsa.

What is "hot sauce" ? Sometimes it is a salsa, sometimes it is a thin strained (never chunky or with particulates) smooth liquid that is very spicy, comes in many different flavors/styles/ingredients,  and is often added to other dishes (for ex, to tacos). Salsa can be added in this way, too, but is more likely to be fresh or used as a dip, whereas hot sauce is always preserved and comes in a bottle or package. There are southwestern hot sauces, but there are hot sauces in Cajun cooking, many Asian ethnic cuisines, Jamaican cooking, etc.

Arriba salsa

Santa Fe School of Cooking - I've been here several times, taken classes ( tons of fun!) and love to buy their stuff



  1. yes! thank you for clearing that up for me!

  2. Thank you this was so helpful :D

  3. I always forget the difference. I thought it was more to do with the size of the chunks. Great photos too.

  4. Thanks for clarifying. I bought a big bottle of Pace Picante Sauce and it was so watery. They have their definitions backward. It was almost a gazpacho! Again, thanks! Great information and photos. ... From San Diego!

  5. Dear Girl from Texas--You don't show an email or contact address and I'm not a blogger. By coincidence, I need to make salsa for my railroad car and came across your good advice. I'm also a Rice grad, probably within 10 years of you. Check out

  6. Nice explanation. I would add that hot sauce almost always has a vinegar component to it, from Louisiana hot sauce to Chalula.

  7. Thanks for clariying,yes I did not realize Pico was drier and salsa that wetter.Now I do not know the difference between these and what they call Chimol in Guatemala and Yucatan or Chirimol in El Salvador? I just read a Salvadoran Chimol version that has chopped radishes in it.Also this mix is often used in making ceviches in El Salvador.Cole Slaw version would be Curtido of El Salvador,but it does not have mayonaise and can be made as hot as one wants.For those who like picked cabbage and are interested look up online or YouTube: Curtido,El Salvador ,usually us eaten on top of pupusas,but would be good on top or inside anything:tstadas,tacos,enchilladas,burritos,etc..